Photoshop tip: Vignettes add focus and character to photos

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Vignetting, in photographic terms, is an effect of a camera lens that results in the darkening of a photograph around its edges. It was long considered to be an unfortunate limitation in lens design, and as technology improved, camera lenses were engineered to minimize vignetting to improve image quality.

Ironically, vignetting has undergone a resurgence in recent years, but as an artistic technique. Used correctly, it adds emphasis and atmosphere to a photograph. You don’t need special lenses to create the effect anymore, as you can create and control such effects in an image editor.

There are many ways and many programs that let you achieve a vignette effect, but I’m going to show you one here that works well for me in Photoshop CS3 and CS4: the Gradient Fill Layer.

The Gradient Fill dialog in Photoshop.

Adding a vignette

Get started by opening a photo in Photoshop. Click the Default Foreground and Background Colors icon in the tool palette to revert to the default foreground (black) and background (white). Now choose Layer -> New Fill Layer -> Gradient. A small dialog box will pop up asking you to name the new layer. Name it “Vignette” and click OK. A new Gradient Fill dialog box will appear, giving you gradient options. Click the gradient, and you’ll be taken to the Gradient Editor. At the moment, you only need to concern yourself with one adjustment. Surrounding the gradient, you will see four arrows with color boxes. The one in the lower right is currently black. Double-click it to bring up the color picker and select white (or enter 100 in the L field). Click OK to return to the Gradient Editor, and then click OK again to return to the gradient fill options. Choose Style -> Radial, enter a Scale of 150 percent, and then check Reverse to invert the gradient. Click OK to finish.

Before: Creating a vignette is simply a matter of adding a gradient layer.

The vignette is now in place, but it’s almost certainly too dark and too washed out. To enrich the colors and lighten the aura, you’ll need to adjust the blending mode and the opacity. Find Vignette in the layers palette (Window -> Layers); it should already be selected. Immediately under the Layers tab you will see the blending mode pop-up menu (by default, it is set to Normal). Choose Overlay from this pop-up menu and then, in the field immediately to the right, adjust the layer opacity to 50 percent.

You’ve now created a basic vignette; to compare before and after, simply toggle the visibility of the layer on and off using the Eye icon in the layers palette. Refine the vignette by tweaking the layer opacity with the slider (15 percent gives you a very subtle effect, while 85 percent is quite strong and bold). Finally, be sure to save the file as a layered PSD to preserve the editability of the vignette. If you flatten the file and save it as JPEG, the vignette will be locked in permanently. You might also want to revisit the gradient itself to adjust its scale and color. Photoshop ships with a folder full of gradient patterns, and loads just a few by default. To see all of Photoshop’s built-in gradient choices, just double-click the gradient icon on your vignette layer, click the tiny arrow next to the Gradient pop-up menu, and click the tiny arrow next to the slider. Note the eight gradient sets (starting with Color Harmonies 1), and load any or all of them. Experiment with these gradients by clicking on them to instantly see their effects on your photo.

After: Even with a sky shot, a subtle vignette can add focus and character.

Additional options

Vignettes can be created a number of ways; this is just one method. Adobe’s Photoshop Elements, Photoshop Lightroom, and Apple’s Aperture also include advanced vignetting controls. You can also find vignette plug-ins in third-party Photoshop plug-in collections such as onOne Software's FocalPoint 2 and Nik Software's Color Efex Pro 3.0. Additionally, photographers who shoot using the RAW file format can typically increase or decrease lens vignetting when importing photos into Photoshop (or another image editor that supports RAW). However, once the file is imported, the vignetting is locked into the photo and cannot be edited further without re-importing the original RAW file. That’s why I prefer the above method: it’s simple, non-destructive, and editable.

[Chris McVeigh is an author, illustrator, and toy photographer based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.]

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